Across Africa, the pace of internet development is surging ahead of the global average. African internet bandwidth grew 41% between 2014 and 2015 to reach 2.9 terabits per second. Mobile broadband also grew by 41% in the same period – over 100 million people now use mobile internet in Nigeria alone.
But the people of the landlocked north west African nation of Mali could be forgiven for being completely oblivious to this surge.
Throughout the Malian capital, Bamako, internet cafe spaces sit empty. Where customers should be taking advantage of solar powered plug points and blackout-proof telephones, there is nobody to be found.
That’s because the workstations won’t let customers check their emails – the apocryphal internet is just too slow.
“We had to shut down this year because we’re not able to provide internet connection for our co-workers. Besides that, the lack of bandwidth, this poor connection is not even working any more,” Renaud Gaudin, boss of one of the internet open spaces in Mali’s capital, told rfi.
“We can’t even ask people to come and work in an environment when they know they can’t even read their mails,” he says.
Tidiane Ball, a fellow co-working space businessman in Bamako said that the sluggish-to-non-existent speeds are strangling start-ups before they have an opportunity to flourish.
“We’re a business, relying on the internet,” he said. “Without the internet we cannot make a living. Those who start up businesses today, their activities are stifled because of the internet. Not only is the internet expensive, but if you want to upload a video on your website, and you don’t have a better connection, you cannot compete, especially at the regional level,”
The best rate a Mali entrepreneur or internet user can expect is a meagre 384kb for a whopping 55 euros per month. Meanwhile, Moroccan civilians and business can gets 20MB for €46. Immediately to the north, Algeria can get 8mb for a similar cost and Mauritania to the west, a country which is 90% desert, can get the same speeds as Mali for less than a fifth of the price.
So why has Mali been left behind?
The problems are twofold – prices are exuberantly high, and a lack of competition in Mali has meant that the two service providers are able to get away with not investing in infrastructure.
State-backed Malitel offers fixed-line internet connectivity and owns 4 per cent of the Mali market. Mali Orange provides WiMAX, a largely nominal ‘long-range’ WiFi service, and owns the other 96 per cent. Neither have upgraded their service significantly in recent years.
Internet entrepreneurs are hacking the awful bandwidth on offer by daisy chaining multiple mobile phones together to utilise the data connection of several devices at once and provide a basic internet.
Mali’s government and regulators complain that they cannot force private operators to lower their prices, and are instead aiming to boost competition and force Mali Orange into providing a better and cheaper service. A third operator has been granted a license to enter the Mali market – but so far no infrastructure has been laid down and it could take as long as two years before the mystery company launches its service.
“The real problem in Africa, or the challenge, is getting all the bandwidth that is available into the country. There are a lot of structural problems building out the network and there is a lot of cost involved in upgrading your network,” says senior TeleGeography analyst Patrick Christian.
Much of West Africa has been plagued by poor internet speeds for years but by 2013, after the installation of two major sea cables, international bandwidth became widely available in the coastal nations. But landlocked countries like Mali didn’t fare so well.
“Everything regarding the internet, its prices, its regulation, everything is so bad, the information doesn’t get out. When you go to Orange, they say it’s the fault of the government, when you go to the government he says it’s the fault of Orange, and so on,” says Gaudin.
Gaudin, therefore, is taking matters into his own hands. He and other like-minded cyber entrepreneurs have created the #Mali100mega hashtag and website to put out the word and campaign for an internet befitting of a rising African nation. With the government remaining silent, these entrepreneurs could be Mali’s only chance of not being left behind.